North Bend set to fine Sallal Water Association $2,000 a day

An ordinance requires the water association to provide water usage rates in the city.

The city of North Bend is playing hardball with a new ordinance, trying to get the Sallal Water Association to hand over water usage data for customers who live within city limits.

The ordinance, approved by the city council on Aug. 25, requires Sallal to provide water usage rates for customers inside North Bend. North Bend City Administrator David Miller said Sallal, which is a member-owned water co-op, had voluntarily provided usage rates for more than a decade until this summer.

“We need that information. It’s required for us to be able to provide sewer billing,” Miller said.

Sallal services hundreds of connections within the city of North Bend in areas that previously lay in unincorporated King County, but were later annexed by the city. North Bend provides sewer services for both its own customers and Sallal’s customers.

Miller said the city needs water usage rates from Sallal customers to calculate sewer use fees. He said the city does not want to have its customers subsidize Sallal customers’ sewer usage if they’re not able to accurately calculate sewer rates.

The ordinance requires Sallal to provide water usage rates to the city by the second week of September. If Sallal doesn’t comply, the city will begin charging the water association $2,000 a day for non-compliance. And Miller said the city is willing go to court over it.

“Which we’re prepared to do. Which I think is unfortunate,” Miller said.

The ordinance also sets an interim billing process, which directs staff to develop bills based on the last two years of water usage for each connection and an added 10 percent administrative fee. The city has the authority to enforce the ordinance because Sallal customers are within city limits, Miller said.

Further, the city is required to negotiate a franchise agreement with Sallal, charging the association for using city right-of-way for the water association’s water infrastructure. Miller said it will give the city a better way to monitor where improvements are being made.

But others disagree. Jean Buckner is a longtime water conservation advocate and Sallal member. She said she has questions over whether the city can enforce the new ordinance, even in city limits, because the water belongs to water association customers who are part of the co-op.

“Members don’t want their data shared,” Buckner said. “A large number of Sallal members probably don’t.”

Buckner wants the city to use existing winter data instead to calculate sewer impacts. But Miller maintains North Bend needs water usage rates from Sallal.

“We had to kind of turn up the volume on this so that they would hear what the law says they need to do,” Miller said.

Buckner is also opposed to a recent water conservation ordinance, which the city approved in June. The ordinance creates a tiered set of water restrictions based on how much water is in the Masonry Pool, which partially runs off into the Snoqualmie River. The less water is in the pool, the more conservation measures will be ratcheted up.

Mark Rigos, North Bend’s public works director, said city attorneys say the measure applies to everyone in the city, including Sallal customers.

But Buckner wants the city to fix leaky pipes first.

“People aren’t buying this water conservation ordinance. They’re saying this is an inappropriate thing to be doing while you’re just ginning out development,” she said.

Rigos said the city has reduced system-wide water leakage from 25 percent to 16 percent, following two major projects completed in 2018.

Development in North Bend has been a point of contention within the city. In 1999, North Bend entered a building moratorium for exceeding its water permit. The city had been drawing more water than its well permitted since the mid-1980s.

In 2009, the large Centennial Well came online. The well can provide enough water for the city, but is required to have two sources of backup water for dry years. It has one backup mitigation source, but still needs another to satisfy Washington State Department of Ecology regulations.

The city and Sallal have been in negotiations for years, but no agreement has been struck.

Rigos said the city has reached out to Sallal, asking the association to voluntarily resume sending the city water usage rates for customers within city limits.

“We’re not looking to penalize North Bend residents whatsoever. It’s really just about making this as easy as possible, keeping administrative costs down,” Rigos said. “That’s my hope, that the Sallal board would revert to their prior practice.”

While Buckner wouldn’t say if a lawsuit was forthcoming, the issue could be decided in court. Some $5,000 was raised on GoFundMe for unspecified “next steps.”

“The city is just — they have no leg to stand on here,” she said.